Photo: Barbara van den Hoek

A Smokin' DeVille (Photo: Barbara van den Hoek)

“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quite for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you.

“And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and the neverwillbes.”

By Doc Pomus (March 13, 1978) – Liner notes to Return to Magenta by Mink DeVille (Capitol LP 11780)

I didn’t know Willy DeVille, who died of pancreatic cancer on 8/6/09 in Manhattan. I interviewed him on one occasion in the Mink DeVille days, probably for New York Rocker, and remember him as guarded, suspicious of the press, and quite intimidating — with his hard shell and heroin hauteur — to this relatively clean-living, upper-middle-class kid from Westchester County. (I wouldn’t have guessed that we were the same age or that he’d grown up in Stamford, Connecticut.) At that time, Willy was inseparable from his girlfriend Toots — she may have the been the first tattooed woman I ever met, this was long before you could get inked at any suburban mall. Pehaps I should’ve brought along some vintage R&B records to break the ice for that interview: Back in ’77-’78, there weren’t too many people on the C.B.G.B. scene giving props to James Brown and Ben E. King the way Willy always did.

I saw him live at least three times, a long time ago: at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis and at C.B.G.B. with the original band, then with a new lineup at a coke-sodden Upper West Side club called Tracks (Trax? Traxx?) where he was showcasing for a new label. Ahmet Ertegun showed up that night and Willy signed with Atlantic in 1981.

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

Until William Grimes mentioned it in his NY Times obituary, I’d forgotten that Willy had formed the first version of Mink DeVille in San Francisco, then relocated the band to New York in 1975. But my friend Sally Webster of the San Francisco Mutants remembered him well:

“Mink DeVille was the first band I saw at [SF punk rock venue] the Mabuhay Gardens and that show made a huge impact on me and some of the other people who later formed the Mutants. The band wasn’t really that good musically but Willy had attitude and presence like you wouldn’t believe — he showed us how far that could take you. People would be surprised to hear it, because our sound was nothing like his, but Mink DeVille was a major impetus for the Mutants coming together as a band.”

Upon his pasing, Willy’s French booking agent, the excellently named Caramba Spectacles, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Willy DeVille this night joined Edith Piaf, Jack Nitzsche, and Johnny Thunders” — pretty good company, I’d say. “Sing on, brother — play on, drummer…”